Applying Urban Thinking to Islamabad

Islamabad is beautiful and idyllic. It is rightly considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world – one that its residents justifiably pride in . So it may come as a bitter pill but the sooner we talk of these issues, the better. For Islamabad, the designed city. was never designed to be a city or to house the over million people that it is now home to.

Cities drive prosperity by bringing people and opportunities together with dense construction and good transport. Thus, successful cities are tall and well-connected while managing the problems of density with services (i.e. sanitation, transport) to promote citizens’ well-being, health and productivity. Islamabad is a 50 year old “designed” city whose safety and suburban beauty make it desirable. However, its design ignored key principles of urbanisation or its future growth. This has come to hurt it and its problems are only piling.

Islamabad is a large city that is spread over 900 square kilometres but has a population of merely 1.9 million. Compare that with the megapolis Karachi that is home to 24 million people but is spread over 1360 square kilometres. That means Islamabad has 2,100 people per square kilometres compared to 17,650 in Karachi, around 25,000 for Shanghai and 46,000 for either Kolkata or Mumbai.

Its short buildings (rarely above 12 meters due to height limit regulations), limited space for new development and in-migration have caused property prices to skyrocket. In fact Islamabad’s property values are among the 20 highest worldwide. Over 90% businesses operate in residential areas, further straining residential stock while causing traffic problems; as commercial real estate to accommodate these is simply unavailable. Recent ill informed campaigns to expels businesses have been fortunately thwarted. One can only imagine the effects of successfully pushing out all businesses to the few commercial areas had been. Very likely the rents would have increased by 4-5 fold, meaning that the average small office that now pays 100,000 or so in rent would be paying around 0.5 million a month. Wonder how many businesses would have survived or how viable would the city have been after losing nearly all of private sector service related employment.

Although idyllic, Islamabad’s services are sporadic and expensive. Electricity, natural gas and electricity are supplied discontinuously for few to several hours daily. Rolling electricity blackouts, once unheard of in Islamabad, now happen for 6-8 hours during peak summer. We are so used to such blackouts for water that we think it normal for water to be supplied for only half to one hour a day. Much of this lack of quality of service relate to how they are priced. All pricing of services is central, with no connection to their actual usage/ availability. Erratic supplies lead to additional costs for storage i.e. water tanks and UPS and use-insensitive pricing leads to overuse of water and electricity when they are available, which further aggravates shortages.

Municipal services cost over Rs. 125,000 per household annually (although only a few thousand of these are directly charged to customers, the rest come from budgetary allocations by the federal government and although we all pay for them, its through indirect taxation and generally invisible), excluding the costs of police, infrastructure and the land transferred to city employees. More importantly the various agencies that manage the city don’t answer to citizenry. Political representation of Islamabad is via the entire National Assembly rather than dedicated members. One has heard of the old axiom: when many are responsible for something, no one is responsible for it.

Recently initiated public transport, connects few areas; requiring nearly all 500,000 children and employees to commute to school and work in private vehicles. This excercise is repeated twice a day. The resulting traffic jams are aggravated by bottlenecked roads, roadblocks and traffic lights that malfunction during peak hours. Just as an example, if all commuters wasted just 10 extra minutes of their time each way, that adds up to 5700 years of time wasted. Roughly equal to 89 lifetimes. Each year. Add to this the costs of wasted fuel while idling, that comes to around Rs. 21 billion a year. All because we choose to ignore how modern cities manage their transport and traffic.

Islamabad can grow into a model city provided its growth is re-conceptualised with services that answer to citizens through political representation, use competition to manage supplies and costs of civic amenity, relax laws on construction height and expand its public transport system. In these it can learn from the Singapore, London and New York.

Blocking our Way from Prosperity: The Costs of Road Mismanagement

Even before there were containers or the diversions for the MetroBus, Islamabad’s roads were still extensively blocked. At over 250 locations to be precise as reported in Dawn and Tribune a year ago. This added to misery of commuters, people sometimes spending hours to traverse distances of minutes. Those coming from Rawalpindi, DHA or Bahria spoke of travel times comparable to those coming from Murree or Abbottabad.

To be fair, not all traffic delays can be attributed to the checkpoints. Poor traffic engineering and even worse traffic management have to held accountable. In a city with 1-2 million population, that occupies the geographical area of Karachi or Lahore, and has 4 lane throughfares, there should NEVER be traffic jams. And yet poor management of roads makes Islamabad’s Jinnah Avenue and Faisal Avenues seem like Karachi’s backstreets. Poorly placed U-turns and crossover points, absence of thought-through pedestrian crossings and randomly placed speed breakers add adventure to what would otherwise be a boring daily commute.

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